The British parliamentary system is in crisis. Labour is consistently polling more than ten points behind the Government; the civil war that broke out upon the election of Jeremy Corbyn continues to burn the party, albeit with the wind blowing against the moderates; Brexit divides them, with the top remain and leave voting constituencies held by Labour MPs, often with views at odds with their electorate. A recent report from the Fabian Society highlighted the magnitude of the problem, but also their one key advantage: the electoral system. The combination of first-past-the-post and 20% of the electorate pledged to vote Labour come-what-may means that the party currently is, in their words, “too weak to win, too big to fail.” If Labour and the Liberal Democrats each polled 20%, Labour would come out with around 140 seats compared to as low as 20 for the Lib Dems.
So should Labour panic? Surely they merely need to hold firm and wait for a scandal big enough to hit the Government and then the public will swing behind Labour as default. Arguably that what why they won in 1997 and it certainly seems to be Corbyn’s strategy for 2020.
The history of the 20th century indicates that this may be the case. Below is the philosophical spectrum upon which we can place all voters and MPs. It has two axes, the primary Left-Right divide, and the secondary Authoritarian-Liberal one. As the struggle between labour and capital came to define the 20th century, this Left-Right divide asserted itself as the dominant force, and the two party system solidified into two camps: Labour and the Conservative Party.
The next image shows the Labour party as a coalition between the Liberal-Left and the Authoritarian-Left, whilst the Conservatives were made up of the Liberal-Right and the Authoritarian-Right. These coalitions endured successfully because voters principally defined themselves on the Left-Right axis. A Liberal-Conservative was quite happy to continue to support an Authoritarian Conservative government or candidate, because their main concern was the promotion of a free market over socialism.
Dividing the elctorate in this manner meant that elections were fought upon the dividing line between left and right, and this sytem broadly kept the two parties in power until the powers began to shift in 2010.
2015 saw the election of Jeremy Corbyn and a split in the Labour party between factions in favour of reaching towards the right and those dissatisfied with the compromises involved. One method on which Tony Blair secured centre-right votes was to continue with the Conservative policy of privatisation, something that is anathema to many on the left. Fig 3 shows the party divided into two, both defining themselves as against the other on the left-right axis.
The deeper red on the left is Jeremy Corbyn’s faction, a much more fervent group who’d like the dividing line between them and the opposition redrawn to the point between them and the centre-left. The lighter shaded moderates are trying to resist this, believing that this cedes too much ground to the Conservatives.
This was the Labour party in 2015-2016, but then something profound occurred across the Western world. The axis shifted. Brexit, the election of Donald Trump, the rise of populism across Europe, all indicate a new dominant force on the democratic map, one that is struggling to exert itself within the current party system.
Donald Trump is not a typical Republican. His policies cannot be easily defined on the left-right spectrum. Sometimes they seem hard-right – extreme tax cuts – whilst the protectionism and high borrowing to finance grand infrastructure spending indicates the policies of the left. When it comes to the left-right divide, Trump is utterly without a philosophy. Instead he is pragmatic, seizing policies from both camps at will. This does not mean he is without any philosophy, however. The one thing that unites his entire platform is his extreme authoritarianism.
The same can be said for the populism sweeping across Europe. Is Marine Le Pen from the left or the right? Lazy journalists call her of the right because of her nationalist attacks on migration, but if (as appears likely at the time of writing) she goes up against François Fillon, a free-market Republican in the mould of Margaret Thatcher, Le Pen will be way to the left of him on economic policy.
UKIP began as a splinter-group from the Conservative Party, and much of the Euroscepticism and anxiety about immigration coming from the Tory leadership from 2010-2016 was intended to lure UKIP voters back into the Conservative fold. However, as the UKIP gained popularity, something curious happened: they started drawing votes from the left. Now UKIP is targeting northern Labour strongholds, combining policies of the left and the right, and all authoritarian.
In the wake of the Brexit referendum, Theresa May secured the leadership of her party – and thus the country – and promptly realigned her government. Rather than define it along the left-right divide, Theresa May has planted her flag firmly on authoritarian ground, combining leftist instincts such as seeking to use the state to help those ‘Just About Managing’ with a traditional tory platform. Like Trump, May moves along the left-right axis at will, knowing that the voters have become pragmatic on this divide, no longer defining themselves in this way. A voter might be in favour of keeping the NHS utterly nationalised, whilst being completely against the nationalisation of energy utilities. However, whilst voters are pragmatic along those lines, they are fervent on the authoritarian-liberal one, favouring either open or closed societies and willing to vote for a party that takes their preferred choice.
Below we can see the territory Theresa May has secured. Whilst personally owning the Authoritarian-Left and the Authoritarian-Right, she continues to keep the Liberal-Right who as yet have nowhere else to go. The vanquished Cameroons would be a good example of these, as would the venerable Ken Clarke.
This should bring Labour’s problem into sharp relief. Theresa May currently dominates three quarters of the political landscape. Labour is making a desperate pitch to reclaim the Authoritarian Left by backing Brexit, but the more they try to gain this ground the more they highlight a more insidious divide. Labour currently believes it is waging a war along the left-right line, not yet fully realising that the true battle is being played out along the authoritarian-liberal one, and on that they have already lost.
Regardless of whoever wins the internal Labour battle, the liberal-authoritarian divide is irreconcilable. Voters who support Brexit are not going to vote for an anti-Brexit party. In short, Labour defines itself along the wrong axis. In the first-past-the-post system this is a disaster. It means the party is unable to mount any kind of viable challenge to the government and the executive is not held to account.
So what is the solution? The only one that appears to be viable is that of slash-and-burn. If Labour is removed from the equation, a new party would be able to flourish, one that doesn’t define itself along the old left-right divide, but along the more relevant authoritarian-liberal one.
Even this wouldn’t provide an electorate large enough to challenge the government, but a party that is philosophically liberal and pragmatic on the old left-right axis would finally give those on the liberal-right somewhere to jump. Only through uniting these two factions can a proper opposition be created to Theresa May’s Brexit government, a challenge that labour, by its very DNA, is incapable of.